Paris Chicken Pox

June 5 2000 11:30 PM

Paris Chicken Pox

At some point in the last few decades, the American male sat down at the negotiating table with the American female and—let us be frank—got fleeced. The agreement he signed foisted all sorts of new paternal responsibilities on him and gave him nothing of what he might have expected in return. Not the greater love of his wife, who now was encouraged to view him as an unreliable employee. Not the special love from his child, who, no matter how many times he fed and changed and wiped and walked her, would always prefer her mother in a pinch. Not even the admiration of the body politic, who pushed him into signing the deal. Women may smile at a man pushing a baby stroller, but it is with the gentle condescension of a high officer of an army of a village that surrendered without a fight. Men just look away in shame. And so the American father now finds himself in roughly the same position as Gorbachev after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having shocked the world by doing the decent thing and ceding power without bloodshed for the sake of principle, he is viewed mainly with disdain. The world looks at him schlepping and fetching and sagging and moaning beneath his new burdens and thinks: OH ... YOU ... POOR ... BASTARD.

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But I digress.

One evening last week, I came home, relieved the baby sitter, and found that Tallulah had three bright red spots on her forehead and, for the first time in her life, a fever. The domestic policy handbook clearly states that when anything goes seriously wrong with our child, I am to holler for her mother and then take my place at her elbow and await further instructions. As I say, the American father of a baby is really just a second-string mother. But the first string was nowhere to be found. For the first time our child badly needed help, which, it appeared, only I could provide. On the heels of that realization followed another: After a year of watching Talullah claw toward her mother whenever she became upset, I now could prove my own qualifications for the job.

A single phone call to a miraculous service called SOS Medicin fetched up a nattily clad French doctor to our doorstep inside five minutes. He arrived in a little white truck with a cross on the side that looked a bit like an old World War I ambulance. He was easily the most reassuring doctor I have ever met; there was not a hint of self-doubt about the man. Treating a sick baby is more like treating a sick dog than a sick person, as the baby can't tell you where it hurts. To our new French doctor this proved no obstacle at all. He marched into the house, spotted Tallulah giggling on the couch, smiled knowingly, and said, "Varicelle."

Chicken pox. Having diagnosed the disease from a distance of 15 feet, he then examined the howling patient for another three minutes. On top of the chicken pox, he found ear and throat infections, plus the fever I already knew about, plus a couple of unrelated, smaller defects. He was so efficient at finding diseases that I thought he would find she had the plague or something, but his work was so quick and self-assured that it was impossible to question any of it. Afterward, he sat down at our kitchen table and wrote out two long pages of prescriptions, all of them illegible, and said that he was certain she'd feel better once she'd taken a few of them. From start to finish, his visit took about 15 minutes and cost less than 40 bucks. Vive la France!

I trundled the prescriptions together with Tallulah across the street to the pharmacy—everything in Paris you might want to buy always seems to be just across the street—and came away with a huge plastic sack of cures. Then, with a truly fantastic display of heretofore unrevealed parental competence, I actually persuaded my child to swallow several of them.

All this was perfectly thrilling, and not simply because there is an obvious pleasure in curing one's child. Power was in the air. It was a rare fatherhood Al Haig moment: I was in charge here.

Then Tabitha walked into the house.

"What's going on?"

I told her everything that had happened, and as I did, tears welled in her eyes. Mistaking their meaning, I could not have been more pleased with myself. I assumed she was moved by my performance. At this difficult moment in our child's life, when she would naturally look to her mother for comfort, her mother was away and unreachable. Plucked from the end of the bench and sent into the game with just seconds on the clock, I'd been told to take the final shot. I'd hit nothing but net.

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